Obsolete By The Time You Read This

Technology marches on while our social institutions generally don’t. Eventually a force pushes the existing order beyond its tipping point, and there’s a bit of mayhem until a new equilibrium is reached. Think of knocking a wasp nest off the rail of your back porch after Aunt May has been stung for the third time. For the profession of teaching, that force is AI.

I know that I’ve been periodically yammering on this blog about the technological transformation of higher education for the last twelve years, and, by outward appearances, it may seem that the peasants haven’t yet grabbed their Instagram pitchforks and stormed the Ivory Tower. But I think AI is the qualitatively different icing on the cake, for a few reasons.

First, open-access AI has demolished the academic cheating industry. Here is the stock price of the “educational support services” company Chegg since OpenAI released ChatGPT:

Instead of buying an essay from an online paper mill in Pakistan or Kenya, students who are unwilling to learn can now get what we insist they deliver for free.

Second, AI has now improved to the point where its text output is equal to or better than that of most human students. Below is a partial screenshot of how ChatGPT analyzed “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” by Larry Diamond (Journal of Democracy 21, 1). Yes, AI can now understand articles and even books that one uploads in pdf form.

AI has rendered the written assessment of student learning, as traditionally formulated, a pointless endeavor.

Third and most importantly, rapidly advancing AI will change how universities institutionalize knowledge. Many traditional fields of study, perceived by students and administrators as ossified vestiges of a pre-digital world, are already marginalized. Universities will use AI as yet another rationale for allocating greater resources to other methods of inquiry.

Last point, tangential to classroom praxis but not to higher ed as a whole: AI portends the death of academic writing as a genre, to which I say, good riddance. The overly educated often refuse to communicate in the vernacular to obfuscate the fact that they actually have nothing to say. Or that they do have something of value to say, but never learned how to say it. If all you do is spout vapid gobbledygook, you’re now redundant, because AI can accomplish the same task much more efficiently. If AI can convey your good ideas more clearly than you can, time to admit that all those years of formal education never trained you to write well in the first place. You need to up your game — possibly with the help of AI.*

*This blog post was not written by AI, though you couldn’t tell if it was.

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